I was a Biblical/Theological Studies major at Biola University in the 1970’s. Biola is located in Southern California, the place where the “Jesus Movement” began in the late 1960’s. I was one of those “Jesus Movement” kids, caught up in the Calvary Chapel movement of the day: Christian Rock and Roll concerts, Hippie clothes, Afro Hairstyle, Beach baptisms, Chuck Smith Bible studies – the whole nine yards. I was a counter-cultural freak who went to a theologically conservative college that taught and thought in less informal ways. In reality, I was caught between two worlds. As I look at it now, I can see that one of my influences was trying to contextualize its theology; the other was not. I didn’t see that at the time. One was not right and the other wrong – they were just different, very different, light years apart.
I hated theology classes. They were not practical. They were usually taught by boring professors. And they were always trying to box in God. Even then as a young Christian, I had a hard time with this. On the other hand, I loved studying the Bible, at least at church. We studies Genesis to Revelation. This was good. It was helpful. But eventually, as the movement began to mature, it eventually began to become effected with theological hardening of the arteries. What had once been fresh was now becoming stale. And eventually, the church I went too also began to box God in. I worked at that church for six years. There were some days of glory – and some seasons of night. Eventually, I left – disillusioned, discouraged, and depleted. Churches can do that to people sometimes, both to those who attend and to those who serve. This brings to mind an important question: How does being stung by a church setting affect one’s theology?
I found this week’s reading to be tough and slow until I came to Stephen Bevans’ book. Reading Bevans’ book this week made my heart excited about theology for the first time in quite a while. He writes, “The contextualization of theology—the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context—is really a theological imperative.” Theology is formed in many ways; it flows from the lives of those whose stories are rich and diverse. It is not a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor. It is shaped through people, through culture, and through experience. Bevans says that contextual theology is both new and traditional, and by its very nature, theology is NOT something that is only owned by Western Christianity. It is also owned by nonwestern cultures. And, declares Bevans, “Christianity, if it is to be faithful to its deepest roots and to its most basic insight, must continue God’s incarnation in Jesus by becoming contextual.” I found this to be beautiful and freeing.
In his conclusion for Chapter 1, Bevans says something that would, I think, make many evangelicals turn in their graves, “Theology today, we can conclude, must be a contextual theology. Several important movements and currents of our times points out aspects in Christianity that make imperative a theology that takes seriously human experience, social location, particular cultures, and social change in those cultures. Pluralism in theology, as well as on every level of Christian life, must not only be tolerated; it must be positively encouraged and cultivated [italics mine].” This is quite radical. So, is our theology supposed to be Biblical or contextual? What about cultural practices about which we are uncomfortable? What about Biblical interpretation that goes against traditional norms? Pluralism of theology – is he serious? Yes, he is very serious. And, yes, contextual theology will make us very uncomfortable. This was music to my ears and to my soul.
For the past year and a half, I have been doing research with Native-American people. This is not an easy task. Regularly, I face closed doors. Native people for the most part do not trust white people, especially Christian researchers. Why? There are many reasons – most are legitimate. The primary reason is obvious: white colonialists committed atrocities against First Nations people groups. And the Church was at the forefront of some of the tragic events, particularly in its attempts to convert the Natives to Christianity. The majority of the evangelism that took place never considered a contextualized approach. Hundreds of thousands of Native children were placed in boarding schools where they were made to cut their hair, dress in Western garb, stop speaking their languages, and renounce their spiritual traditions. Families were torn apart. There was much suffering. There is still much suffering. This is the history, the context into which I come. I heard recently that perhaps three percent of Native-Americans are Christian. It is a “no-brainer” as to why this is.
Would not a contextualized approach have been a better way to work among these people? I would think so. Perhaps it is not too late. Thankfully, there are some better things happening now. The late Richard Twiss speaks to these matters very seriously. He advocates that Native practices ceremonies be incorporated into Christian worship, and He challenges the American Church to think deeply: “It is my conviction that because of Native Americans’ history of suffering and their absence from the evangelical mainstream, the Body of Christ in America suffers from a spiritual low-grade fever.” His book outlines a better way for Native people to understand the Christian faith, a very contextualized way. Twiss’ book is an important read for all Christians.
The North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) is an organization that is also working with matters of contextualized theology, particularly for Native people. Their journals are very helpful in understanding the issues and struggles of Christian thought among First Nations peoples. They offer an annual symposium that is very helpful. This year’s symposium will be at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. I hope to attend again this year. Maybe some of my cohort members would like to join me.
Theology is bigger than we think. But we must be committed to an understanding that is beyond our own tradition. God works among all peoples in all ages. We must be willing to cooperate with God. We must contextualize. God help us; God help me.
 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Marynoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011) 3.
 Ibid, 12.
 Ibid, 15.
 Richard Twiss, One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2000) 18.